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  • Sun., Nov. 30, 2014 2:05 PM MST Cardinals at Falcons Week 13 of the regular season at the Falcons
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Blogs

Lasting thoughts from the first

Posted by Darren Urban on April 30, 2014 – 10:54 am

The first Cardinals draft I covered as a beat guy was back in 2001, which just so happened to be the highest pick the Cards have had since I have been around the team — second overall. That’s 13 drafts overall and 14 first-round picks. As the Cards get closer to this year’s draft (jeez, is it ever going to get here?) I thought I’d hit the first-round picks I’ve seen, with both my initial thoughts at the time and what hindsight has brought.

2001: T Leonard Davis. It was a no-brainer. Davis was a sure thing, taken right after Michael Vick. He’d be the 10-year left tackle the Cardinals sought since Lomas Brown had left. Bigg (he went by the nickname “Big” and at some point, started adding an extra “g”) was just that, a mammoth man. Sure, the Cards decided to play him at guard his first season, but that was so he could get used to the game. Dave McGinnis even brought myself and Kent Somers to his office one day to show us Davis manhandling a couple of defenders. I remember him totally rag-dolling Bears safety Mike Brown on one play. Problem was, he never really panned out as a left tackle, even though Denny Green insisted on shoe-horning him there. He was a better guard, and the Cards weren’t going to break the bank on a guard, so he later got big money from the Cowboys. And made the Pro Bowl. As a guard.

2002: DT Wendell Bryant. What I really remember is hearing how then-defensive line coach Joe Greene had been so impressed with Bryant the player and the person during a workout up in Wisconsin. Uh, yeah, not so much. Bryant was a holdout until the regular season started of his rookie year, and he never climbed out of that hole. A total bust.

2003: DE Calvin Pace and WR Bryant Johnson. Ahh, the everyone-assumed-Terrell-Suggs-was-coming-to-the-Cards draft. This was the most surprising first round. The Cards traded down from No. 6 overall, thinking in part they could get DE Jerome McDougle. The Eagles jumped to No. 15 to get McDougle, and the Cards reached for Pace at 17 and then took Johnson at 18. Pace ended up a decent player, although he didn’t really hit his stride until Ken Whisenhunt showed up. This was a thank-goodness-for-Anquan-Boldin-in-the-second-round class.

2004: WR Larry Fitzgerald. And to think, if Josh McCown’s pass falls incomplete, would it have been Eli Manning? Or would Denny Green have made sure Fitz was No. 1 overall?

2005: CB Antrel Rolle. This was pretty straight-forward. Rolle was considered a top-10 talent, the Cards needed a corner. The problem was Rolle came into the league with most assuming he’d be better at safety. He was.

2006: QB Matt Leinart. Green said when the pick was made that Leinart falling to the Cards at 10 was really a “gift from heaven.” Seems really silly now. But it wasn’t at the time. (The Cards likely would have taken Jay Cutler, who went No. 11, if Leinart had been off the board.) Truth be told I thought it was a good pick, and I was convinced he would be that QB the Cards needed after his first two starts, come-from-ahead losses — but not his fault — to Kansas City and Chicago (“We let ‘em off the hook!”) Time proved I was way wrong. But it allowed Kurt Warner’s rebirth, so there’s that.

2007: T Levi Brown. The Cards wanted a left tackle. Joe Thomas was already taken. The Cards already had Edgerrin James, so Adrian Peterson didn’t make enough sense. And I’ll move on.

– 2008: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC was odd. He was raw. He was good. He frustrated sometimes, going from Pro Bowl talent to a guy who wouldn’t pay attention in stretches. But it was the right call. If only he hadn’t been the price for Kevin Kolb …

– 2009: RB Beanie Wells: Beanie was never really healthy. A prime example of why teams don’t look to running backs early anymore.

– 2010: NT Dan Williams. Williams has been a starter and has improved. He forms a nice tandem with Alameda Ta’amu. Funny, the biggest thing I remember of when the Cards took him was that Tim Tebow was picked right before him — virtually eliminating any chance he was going to get mentioned on national TV broadcasts.

– 2011: CB Patrick Peterson. Yeah, a good pick. Obvious, but good.

– 2012: WR Michael Floyd. He’s turned into a good player in a short time. He wasn’t the left tackle everyone said they wanted, but he was better than the tackles on the board.

– 2013: G Jonathan Cooper. Coop should turn out to be a wise choice. If any of the big three tackles had been left at No. 7, the Cards probably would have nabbed one, but GM Steve Keim was about best players, and he believes Cooper was that.

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B.A. + draft = playing time

Posted by Darren Urban on April 28, 2014 – 11:47 am

One of the reasons Steve Keim liked hiring Bruce Arians as head coach was because Arians was so blunt in proclaiming his ability to go young. Young, in this league, often means inexperienced and with the potential for mistakes, and that’s not always a coach’s favorite thing. Of all the ways Arians and predecessor Ken Whisenhunt are different, it is the use of the inexperienced that stands out the most.

Last year, first-round pick Jonathan Cooper and third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu each were inserted into the starting lineup (although Cooper’s injury sidelined him). Andre Ellington got more and more time as the season went on. It’s not as if Whisenhunt didn’t play rookies, but looking at first-round picks alone — the guys you would think would play a lot from the outset — Whiz clearly moved them in slowly. Patrick Peterson was an anomaly (and don’t forget, if it wasn’t for a Greg Toler injury, even PP might’ve started the year on the bench.) Michael Floyd, Dan Williams, Beanie Wells, DRC all were slow to be worked in. Levi Brown needed Oliver Ross’ injury.

Meanwhile, Arians doesn’t bat an eye to go to a Mathieu, or to stick a Bradley Sowell in at left tackle when Brown fails. It leads you to a couple of thoughts. One, whomever is drafted May 8-10 could make an immediate impact. It’ll depend on who it is and what position they play, but even though Arians has repeatedly said this team could go play the season as is and it would work, I’m guessing there will be draft picks that make a difference a la Mathieu and Ellington. The other is that if you are a young player upon whom this staff hesitates, you clearly need to ramp it up, for example, Bobby Massie. It’s not age alone that will provide hesitation in getting you on the field.

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Edge and the falling value of running backs

Posted by Darren Urban on April 17, 2014 – 11:01 am

It was a rainy Saturday in March 2006 when Edgerrin James visited the Cardinals for the first time. Kurt Warner was gamely trying to hold his annual flag football tournament on the practice fields, and the Cards were in the process of locking up a star running back. The price, in the end, was four years and $30 million. James didn’t collect all of it, but he still got plenty. The Colts felt James was on the downside, not worth the cash, and in the end, they were proven right that they didn’t need him — winning the Super Bowl in 2006 with young Joseph Addai and the serviceable yet forgettable Dominic Rhodes at running back.

The overall trend to run through running backs when they were cheaper and then move on hadn’t enveloped the NFL completely. But that’s about when the Cards’ thought process turned. From there, Tim Hightower was a fifth-round pick who essentially replaced Edge in 2008. Beanie Wells was added in the first round for 2009. Ryan Williams was drafted in 2011. Then came Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor last season. The Cardinals have not spent anything close to significant money on a free agent running back since Edge. They have yet to have a running back drafted play past his rookie contract. The reality of the NFL is that the position has not only be devalued, the bottom dropped out of the market faster than Arizona home sales circa 2009.

Only Williams is scheduled to make at least $1 million this season, and whether he remains on the 53-man roster for 2014 is very much up in the air. Ellington (who only will make $495,000) is the starter, and whether Taylor ($495,000) or Jonathan Dwyer ($795,000) is the other back, there is little (relative) investment. You see the same across the league, with the money being paid to free agent running backs, with the way running backs are sliding down the draft every year. The way things have gone, that No. 3 overall pick spent on Trent Richardson might be the last time a top 10 pick is spent on a back ever.

Of course, “ever” is a long time. Sometimes, a back is special and deserves the big money. Adrian Peterson comes to mind (and no, we won’t go into how he ties into the Cardinals and the Edge signing right now.) But these days, it doesn’t look like many Petersons will emerge. Not the way colleges are using running backs themselves, and not the way the NFL is handling them once they get to the pros.

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Considering Alfonso

Posted by Darren Urban on July 31, 2013 – 5:59 pm

Alfonso Smith first came to the Cardinals in April of 2010. It’s been a journey back and forth since then. He’s always flashed talent, but he could never get past guys with more glittering resumes like Tim Hightower/Beanie Wells/Ryan Williams/LaRod Stephens-Howling/Chester Taylor. Last year, in fact, he was released in favor of William Powell at the end of camp. But when Wells and Williams suffered more injuries, the Cards brought Smith back, and it is he and not all the others (save for Williams) who is still around.

Now, everyone is talking about Rashard Mendenhall’s career comeback or what Williams can still do or what draftees Stepfan Taylor or Andre Ellington might be able to do. Smith still has an uphill climb to a roster. He knows this.

“Man, in the past when I was younger it would frustrate me and it would cloud my mind and I wouldn’t perform to the best of my ability,” Smith said. “Now I know sometimes things aren’t in my hands and I just go out there and give it all I got and coaches, fans and y’all (in the media) see hey, I can play. I know those guys have proven themselves too. But I do have talent and I work hard and I am just as good.”

It’s hard not to notice him. You can argue he isn’t always going against the top part of the roster, but Smith looks the part much of the time. And he practices like you’d expect — like he knows his time could be cut short at any point. The other day during 1-on-1 pass protection drills, Smith had a pair of doozies with linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Reggie Walker (below) when he doggedly battled in a setup that are designed to make it very hard for a back to be successful.

“I look at the defense that they are trying to take food out of my mouth, they are trying to take food away from my family,” Smith said. “I take it very personal. When I saw Mendenhall and Ryan (Williams) go out and the defense kind of got the best of them, it pissed me off. That’s like seeing your brothers getting in a fight. I just wanted to go hit the defense in the mouth.”

The numbers say the Cards will keep at least four running backs. Keeping a fifth is usually a luxury. So Smith fights to see if he can stick around yet again.

“(Coaches) don’t really tell me anything but I know when I do well,” Smith said. “I grade myself hard. When I mess up one time out out of the whole practice, I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got to fix that because I know my window is not as big as theirs and my opportunities are slim.’ That’s all I can do.”


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Still on the market

Posted by Darren Urban on May 7, 2013 – 11:13 am

The draft is over. Rosters for most teams have ballooned to the max of 90 or near it (the Cardinals, right now, have 88 on the roster.) And yet there are still a ton of veteran players out there without jobs that you wouldn’t think would be without jobs.

Some players you can understand why it might be happening. Both Michael Adams and Paris Lenon played significant time last season for the Cards, but both were free agents and their time had run its course in Arizona. Adams was always a Ken Whisenhunt favorite — with both Whiz and former special teams coach Kevin Spencer in San Diego, I expected Adams to end up with the Chargers, but it hasn’t happened yet — but his size isn’t great for a cornerback. Lenon played well but at his age, teams are looking to go younger and cheaper.

Of the players cut, Kerry Rhodes still hasn’t been picked up, nor Early Doucet or Beanie Wells. It’s not surprising with Beanie, unfortunately. His knees aren’t in good shape and he’s going to have to pass a physical for someone. But I thought Doucet would have a spot by now and Rhodes too. The Cards wanted Rhodes to take a pay cut, yes, but they wanted to find a way to extend his contract too and apparently he passed. So now what?

Those aren’t the only “names” on the market. Profootballtalk.com actually has compiled an “All-Unemployed team” of players still looking for jobs, and it’s a pretty impressive list. (The Cardinals have been linked to defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, by the way, and they still need to sign a couple of players.) Some of these veterans are looking for money they probably aren’t going to get. Former front-office guy/agent Andrew Brandt pointed out this morning some vets may not be in a hurry to sign because the same minimal offers out there now will be there closer to camp (and then the vet doesn’t have to show up and work in the offseason.) That may be true. For some, you have to consider the risk/reward. Even if Lenon, for instance, was paid minimum, is that worth it at age 36 for the pounding his body takes?


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No more Beanie, and new wideouts hit NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on March 11, 2013 – 2:13 pm

I thought the day before free agency began was supposed to be quiet.

Instead, it most certainly has not been, not for anyone following the Cardinals. The Cards continued to make moves by cutting running back Beanie Wells — more on that in a minute — while NFC West foes Seattle and San Francisco set up trades for Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin and Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, respectively. Those teams were already set up for success and obviously, both players make them better.

(The deals, which can’t be made official before tomorrow at the earliest, are different in nature, though. The Seahawks gave up a three-pick haul for Harvin, including their first-round pick, and will need to sign him to an extension. The 49ers gave up just a sixth-round pick because everyone knew the Ravens were going to cut Boldin, and that could very well be a one-year rental depending on why direction the Niners want to go in 2014. Boldin has one year left on his contract. The Boldin deal can’t be completed before he takes a physical either, and that comes after he completes his trip to Africa with Fitz.)

In the meantime, the Cardinals let Wells go. Beanie always knew it was a likely result. He believes he can rebound from his knee problems at age 24 but they have dogged him for more than a year now. When healthy — heck, even when kind of healthy in 2011 — Wells could run over opponents with the best of them. He had some runs as a rookie on that 10-win 2009 team that made you wonder why he wasn’t playing more. But when you don’t catch passes or block tremendously well, when running is mostly what you do, you need to be able to do that often. He didn’t miss a ton of games before last season but going forward, with a new offense, the marriage between the Cards and Beanie didn’t make a lot of sense to continue.

Next at running back? Ryan Williams will get a shot, I’d think, depending on free agency. The Reggie Bush buzz will be floating out there until Bush signs somewhere. Maybe it’s him. Maybe someone else. Maybe the draft makes sense. But if you are certain you will get a big name back there, remember the Colts and Bruce Arians rode Vick Ballard last year and no one knew who Vick Ballard was before that. There has been zero talk about LaRod Stephens-Howling so I’m not sure if he is still an option to be re-signed. The overhaul continues.

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Thoughts on Beanie and Ryan Williams

Posted by Darren Urban on February 21, 2013 – 2:49 pm

Both Steve Keim and Bruce Arians talked about the Cardinals’ top two running backs today. As you can imagine, injuries were at the center of their analysis with both Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams.

“I think Beanie had a tough stretch this year because of the injuries,” Keim said. “He showed a lot of grit, a lot of toughness late in the year when he was able to. Some of the lower extremity injuries, his ankles, his knees, his feet, he’s had a tough time with his cut ability and his lateral movement. But Beanie is still a big horse who can finish runs and create yardage after contact, which is something that excites us.”

Arians didn’t get around to Wells, and it would still seem that Beanie’s future — even though his salary is a manageable $1.4 million this season (assuming he is a main back) — is up in the air. He still remains a work-in-progress as a pass protector, and that is a prerequisite for Arians. As for Williams, there is something to work with — as long as he can get on the field. Keim spoke generally a couple of times about availability being as important as ability and that certainly applies to the 2011 second-round pick.

“Ryan has to stay healthy,” Arians said. “I actually ran the (Virginia Tech) Pro Day there when all those guys came out and he was a fantastic athlete. He has to get healthy and we’ll see how he fits. But as a running back, he’s got what it takes.”

Keim said he has seen Williams rehabbing and sounded optimistic about what the Cards could have.

“He’s a guy that, watching film with Bruce, because he got injured early in the season, you forgot the type of run skills Ryan had,” Keim said. “We watched him against Philadelphia, we watched him against New England, his lateral quickness, his natural run skills, his avoidability is something he brings to the table. Plus he’s a three-down back. We’re expecting big things out of Ryan moving forward.”

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Catches from the backfield

Posted by Darren Urban on February 19, 2013 – 3:12 pm

Just in case anyone wasn’t sure about new coach Bruce Arians wanting to get the ball downfield if possible in the running game, Arians makes it pretty clear what he wants to see in his running backs.

He wants someone who can run, of course. And block. Beyond that? Let’s just say that fantasy football players in points-per-reception leagues aren’t going to look at the Cardinals first.

“They are back there because they are runners and pass protectors,” Arians said. “Will we throw to the backs? Yeah. But the receivers are the ones paid to catch it. (Running backs) are helping but it’s doubtful our running back leads the team in receiving.”

Last season, injuries crushed the Cards’ running backs, so reception totals don’t correspond perfectly in what the prior staff wanted to do in the passing game, but even Ken Whisenhunt’s pass game didn’t use the backs a ton as receivers (especially after Tim Hightower left.) William Powell had the most catches for a running back last year (19), and that was sixth on the team behind Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, Rob Housler and Early Doucet. LaRod Stephens-Howling was tied for seventh with tight end Jeff King with his 17 catches. Ryan Williams had seven receptions, Anthony Sherman five and Beanie Wells only had one.

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Williams was “scared” and running back questions

Posted by Darren Urban on February 13, 2013 – 10:40 am

When Bruce Arians was first hired, he talked about taking shots downfield, and people getting too hung up on how much a team runs the ball as opposed to how effective it was in the ground game, and how where a team stood on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter ultimately dictated how much a team was going to run.

But he also said “we will have an attack, and we will start with the run.”

Who will be running it? That’s a good question.

I expect Ryan Williams to have the chance to be one of them. As Williams said, he’s got the label of being “damaged goods,” and he has a lot to prove. Between a torn hamstring, ruptured patella tendon and fracture of his left shoulder, his last three years — one at Virginia Tech, two in the NFL — have been forgettable. But he’s feeling a ton better going into 2013 and thinks no one saw the real Williams last year in his brief time because his patella and knee weren’t ready, and he played like it.

“I won’t say I was rushed, but … people don’t even understand what was going through my head when I got that ball,” Williams said. “Say I was running to my left side, my whole right side is exposed. I’m ducking, I’m curling, I don’t want to get touched. The first thing as a running back, you can’t be scared, and those four games, I was scared. I’m not going to lie.”

Even if Williams returns and can do well, he can’t be the only option. Beanie Wells is here in the final year of his contract — he was rehabbing alongside Williams the other morning — and his status is also interesting. The relationship between he and former coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed strained by the end and perhaps Wells benefits from a fresh start. The Cards must decide what to offer unrestricted free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling, who seems likely to hit the open market at this point.

There has been speculation of a connect-the-dots variety that the Cards might go after unrestricted free agent Rashard Mendenhall, whose time with the Pittsburgh Steelers is coming to an end but who performed pretty well for Arians when Arians was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall has battled a lot of injuries the last two years, however. Then there is the real possibility the Cards use a draft pick at some point. Alfonso Smith and William Powell are still in the mix for now, but again, when you have a new staff and a new offense, it’s hard to know exactly the direction the roster might go.

(In a semi-related note, running back Javarris James, who spent the 2012 season on injured reserve after blowing out his knee in the preseason, has been suspended the first four games of the 2013 season, according to multiple reports. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network said it was for substance abuse. James is an exclusive rights free agent. I’m not sure if the Cards were planning on bringing him back, but this news doesn’t help. James can take part in the offseason/training camp if needed.)

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Breaking down the roster

Posted by Darren Urban on January 3, 2013 – 3:24 pm

The combination of a 5-11 record and change with both the general manager and head coach usually leads to one thing: Roster turnover. Of course, none of that happens until the new GM and head coach are in place, and that isn’t happening tomorrow.

(Reiterating from Michael Bidwill on Monday: “It’s not going to move at lightning speed. You don’t want it to, because you learn a lot during your due diligence period.” Remember that concept.)

In the meantime, there are things to speculate upon. With that, here is my annual overview of the roster and where players stand contract-wise heading into the offseason. Free agency begins at 2 p.m. Arizona time on March 12. Until then, the Cardinals have the ability to re-sign any of their own players set to hit the market. With the shift in giving all draft picks at least four-year contracts, the shrinking of the restricted free agent market continues; the only RFA the Cards have is linebacker Brandon Williams, who was so far off the radar after being waived-injured back after training camp that he didn’t appear on the roster.

There are some key decisions to make:

– In terms of unrestricted free agents, it seems probable that all of them would choose to at least reach the market. At this point, there is probably nothing to lose, and would want to see their market value. The Cardinals need to figure out whether they want to lock down these guys. Of the 13 unrestricted guys on the market, the most intriguing include safety Rashad Johnson (given the looming decision on Adrian Wilson), linebacker Quentin Groves, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, linebacker Paris Lenon and cornerback Greg Toler. I would not be shocked, especially with roster change, to see any of them leave. Lenon’s age works against him. Johnson’s future may be tied to whomever is coach.

– Of the players under contract, money may dictate change. We’ve covered QB Kevin Kolb’s situation plenty, but that will have to be figured out. I think the Cardinals would like to extend safety Kerry Rhodes, who has one more season, but he’s also due a $4.5 million salary and a $1 million reporting bonus next year and that might be too pricey for the team. I’d think they’d want to extend Rhodes and restructure the deal. He may end up in a Wilson situation from camp. Speaking of Wilson, does the team bring him back for a 13th season? That too may depend on the new decision-makers. Wilson is due a roster bonus in March so we may know soon. Curious to know what the Cards do with running back Beanie Wells, if anything.

Lots of questions like that. Obviously I’ve barely touched on most of them. It’s difficult to get too much of a read on them until those making the choices are in place. I think there are going to be plenty of comings and goings, and it won’t just be relegated to the coaching and GM searches.

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